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Building up your child's self-esteem

Children compare themselves with their peers from an early age. Children with specific learning difficulties soon realize that they face hurdles that other children do not. Many devise successful mechanisms for maintaining their self-esteem despite their difficulties; but some develop maladaptive mechanisms for coping. Parents can play an important role in building up their child’s self-esteem.

Self-esteem is crucial for children with specific learning difficulties because it enables them to get into a cycle of success. If they have faith in their ability, they will try harder. If they try harder, they are more likely to succeed, thereby further increasing their feeling of self-worth. By contrast, low self-esteem can cause a vicious cycle of failure. The child tries to evade failure by avoiding challenges. This results in poor attainments that reinforce the child’s feelings of inadequacy. Parents need to encourage their child to enter the cycle of success.

The development of self-esteem has important implications for the child’s future. If a child has not attained good self-esteem by adulthood, he will derive little value from his academic skills. If he has good self-esteem, he will probably cope well with life, even if his academic ability is limited.

How can you, as parents, engender high self-esteem in your child with a specific learning difficulty? First, you should try to accept your child’s weaknesses. He needs love that is not conditional upon his achievement. You also need to accept his feelings, without criticism.

Try to emphasize his positive attributes, and show how you value them. He needs plenty of praise for his efforts. Do not say ‘Well done’ or ‘Good boy’, but rather ‘You spelt that difficult word very well’, or ‘That was excellent reading’. Make it clear what you are praising him for.

Children learn self-esteem from their parents’ example. This is one of the reasons that children whose parents have high self-esteem are more likely to have high self-esteem themselves. You need to have faith in yourself. Let your child hear you praise your own accomplishments (for example, ‘I’m very pleased with the way this cake has turned out’, or ‘That was a job well done’).

Encourage your child to set realistic goals so that he can experience success. Most importantly, help him to evaluate his achievements realistically, so that he is not overly critical of himself. It is important to set achievable goals at the start of any activity. If your child is going to attempt something that is too difficult for him, guide him to a more suitable activity in a tactful way.

You should also teach your child to praise himself. If he achieves something, ask him, ‘How do you think you did?’, or ‘Are you pleased with your spelling of these words now?’. Teach him also to praise others (for example, ‘What do you think of dad’s salad?’).

Your child needs special time with you to feel loved. Special time does not mean that you have to organize activities away from home. It is time when you are able to give attention to your child in a way that builds up his self-esteem. The important thing is that it should be enjoyable for your child, and that he should be receiving your full attention.

Children also need to feel they belong to something. It may be an idea to arrange for your child to join a hobby group, a scout pack, or some other such unit. Encourage him to feel proud of his school, his neighbourhood, and his ethnic tradition.

Children need to feel they have the power to make some of the choices that affect their lives. Whenever possible, let him select things for himself, such as which clothes he wears, in what order he does things, and which books he takes from the library. Admire his choices and praise his self-sufficiency.

Another way of increasing your child’s self-esteem is by enriching his experiences. Take him on excursions, teach him to do new things like gardening, or make a photo album with pictures of himself—all these things increase his feelings of self-worth. Give him opportunities to become self-reliant: teach him to make small purchases on his own, to answer the telephone, and to take responsibility for some household task.

Parents should be aware of some of the common defences that children develop to cope with feelings of low self-esteem, as these can easily be misinterpreted. If wrongly handled, the child’s self-esteem may be further lowered. These defences include aggressive behaviour, withdrawal, and frequent quitting. Management of these, and other coping mechanisms, are discussed in Chapter 12.

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